Overview of Hemoptysis

Hemoptysis (which is pronounced he-MOP-tis-is) is coughing up blood from the respiratory tract. Blood can come from the nose, mouth, throat, the airway passages leading to the lungs, or the lungs. The word "hemoptysis" comes from the Greek "haima," meaning "blood," and "ptysis," which means "a spitting".

Blood-tinged mucus in a healthy nonsmoker usually indicates a mild infection. Indeed, the most common cause for coughing up blood is the least serious—a ruptured small blood vessel caused by coughing and/or a bronchial infection.

In patients with a history of smoking and those who are otherwise at risk for lung disease, however, hemoptysis is often a sign of serious illness.

Serious conditions that can cause hemoptysis include bronchiectasis (chronic dilation and infection of the bronchioles and bronchi), pulmonary embolus (a clogged artery in the lungs that can lead to tissue death), pneumonia (a lung infection), and tuberculosis.

Hemoptysis can also result from inhaling a foreign body (e.g., particle of food) that ruptures a blood vessel. Whatever the suspected cause, hemoptysis should always be reported to a physician.

Hemoptysis refers specifically to blood that comes from the respiratory tract. Blood also may come from the nose, the back of the throat, or part of the gastrointestinal tract. When blood originates outside of the respiratory tract, the condition is known as "pseudohemoptysis."

Vomiting up blood, medically known as hematemesis, is one type of pseudohemoptysis. Differentiating between hemoptysis and hematemesis is an integral part of diagnosis. Since they involve different parts of the body, treatments and prognosis (prospect of recovery) are not the same.

Classifying hemoptysis as mild or massive (some practitioners classify it as trivial, moderate, or massive) is difficult because the amount of blood is often hard to accurately quantify. Life-threatening, "massive" hemoptysis, which requires immediate medical attention, is differentiated from less severe cases.

Massive Hemoptysis

Hemoptysis is considered massive, or major, when there is so much blood that it interrupts breathing (generally more than about 200-240 mL, or about 1 cup, in 24 hours). Massive hemoptysis is a medical emergency: the mortality rate for patients with massive hemoptysis can be as high as 75 percent. Most patients who die from hemoptysis suffer from asphyxiation (lack of oxygen) due to too much blood in the airways.

Mild Hemoptysis

If there is a small amount of blood or sputum streaked with blood, the spitting is considered mild hemoptysis. In 60 to 70 percent of mild hemoptysis cases, the underlying disorder is benign and disappears on its own without causing serious problems or permanent damage.

Even mild hemoptysis can result in critical breathing problems, depending on the underlying cause for the bleeding. Additionally, hemoptysis tends to occur intermittently and recur sporadically, and there is no way to predict if patients with mild hemoptysis are at risk for massive hemoptysis. Diagnosis is important to prevent a more serious condition.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 30 May 2000

Last Modified: 18 Sep 2015